Tuesday, January 16, 2007

NFL fever: can you catch it?

After four games decided by 18 points over the weekend, two major upsets in the AFC and the excellence of Deuce McAllister, if you don't have NFL fever at this point, you're pretty hopeless.

The divisional round of the playoffs historically has been the worst of the playoff rounds since the NFL expanded to the 12-team playoff format. This is because the bye-week recipient has all-too-often waxed the poor stiff that played the week before. In 2002 and 2004, three of the four games were wipeouts. From '90-'01 about 1/2 the games each year were home-team routs of the wild card. This year, the two NFC teams each won by a field goal thanks in no small part to their opponents' blunders; the two AFC homers honked.

The worst whiff of the weekend is a tough call. The Eagles mismanaged the clock; the S'Hawks mismanaged the ball; the Ravens mismanaged the offense and the Chargers flat-out choked. Let's look at all four:

The Colts won because they suddenly have a defensive clue. Peyton Manning has 1 TD, 5 INT in two playoff games and the Colts are in the AFC title match. Baltimore needs more than a caretaker on offense. The 2000 paradigm that Brian Billick is using (no offense, killer defense) only worked by good fortune that season -- the Titans rolled the Ravens up and down the field in their playoff game but committed two key turnovers that reversed the teams' fortunes. Turnovers are more a matter of good happenstance than skill and the Ravens need more from their offense than mere lack of mistakes to beat a top team in the playoffs.

The Saints won because Deuce McAllister is now a good inside runner. Before his injury that quashed 2/3 of the 2005 season, McAllister was a poor man's Tomlinson -- cutback runner, outside speed. Since the injury, McAllister has reincarnated as a pounding interior runner and he beat the Eagles physically on Saturday. A negative note: Reggie Bush puts the ball on the ground too often. I thought it ironic that on Friday I read an article on ESPN Page 2 ripping Andy Reid's clock management (remember the Pats-Eagles Super Bowl and the greenbirds' slow-motion offense in the fourth quarter down by 10?), and then on Saturday Reid PUNTS THE BALL with 1:50 left and his team down by 3. I don't care about down and distance at that point, you go for it. The Saints ran out the clock thereafter.

The Bears are really shockingly weak. The S'Hawks stink and could have won that game. I think they should be worried that Seattle found so much success over the middle considering that Brian Urlacher thebestlinebackersinceSingletary is supposed to be preventing such success. The Saints exploit the empty pockets of the opponents' defense better than any other team -- just ask the Cowboys.

The Patriots beat a better team. During the entire game, there was no question that the Chargers were faster, equally strong, and had better skill players (other than Brady). The fact that Brady led his team from 14-3 down to a crucial end-of-half TD; the fact that the Chargers failed to pound the Pats' defense; the fact that scrap-heap WRs Reche Caldwell and Jabbar Gaffney had 18 catches for more than 180 yards; and the incredible fumble allowed the Pats to win a game they had no business winning. That fourth-down play -- six minutes left, Pats with fourth and 8 in Charger territory, Brady passes, Chargers intercept, Pats' WR Troy Brown causes a fumble on the return, Pats' WR Reche Caldwell recovers, Pats restart their drive and score the tying TD -- encapsulated the game. The Chargers win if the DB just knocks down the pass. The Chargers win if they don't get too cute on offense. The Chargers win if . . .

One note on the Chargers -- they had no business whining and crying about the Pats' celebration on the field after the game. And calling the Pats classless is simply sore-loserdom at its worst. LT2 and his teammates overreacted.

More fun this Sunday -- and appropriately the AFC title game gets a prime time slot.

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